When Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition co-ordinator Beth Slaney contacted popular Toronto “elephant” ceramist Lenore Atwood about her application to exhibit her stoneware sculpture at this July’s annual 500-exhibitor show in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, Slaney in-
formed the artist that her work was just too cute. Slaney backed up her comment, according to Atwood, by charging that 20 other craftspeople who exhibited at last year’s show complained that her work competed unfairly with theirs. The apparent slight has sparked a growing controversy in Toronto art cir-
cles that has involved everyone from the Toronto Arts Council to the artist’s sister-in-law, author Margaret Atwood.
During the past 10 years Lenore Atwood, 45, has built a $34,000-a-year business fashioning buff-colored clay into squat, rotund elephants in surrealistic situations: playfully squeezing their way out of brightly colored toothpaste tubes, dangling from clay parachutes and peeking out of sculpted ballet slippers. Atwood’s droll pachyderms spoof anything that is faddish. She has recently created a clay Rubik’s Cube covered with elephants and bright green “cruise missilphants.” The figurines are priced from $18 to $300 each, and among those who own her squashed elephants are pianist Oscar Peterson and Solicitor General Robert Kaplan.
Festival organizers indicated by letter last January that Atwood, who has contributed for the past eight years, could enter if she were prepared to reduce her elephant work to less than half of her total display. She was further instructed to include “functional” dishware, such as bowls—items that Atwood no longer makes.
The issue has rapidly escalated in the Toronto arts community because of Margaret Atwood, who is hotly pursuing Lenore’s goal of “justice for elephants.” Last month the Toronto Arts Council, which normally gives an $800 grant to the exhibition, placed the issue on its agenda. And City of Toronto Aid. Anne Johnston, an Atwood elephant collector, has written a letter of “fervent” support to Atwood, offering her assistance. Lenore Atwood says: “I am no Michelangelo. But I do not think by making mugs I could make a greater social comment.” During the past month Atwood claims that about 25 craftspeople have denied to her that they had complained about her work.
For her part, Slaney says Atwood’s work this year was subjected to a jury (including former Globe and Mail critic Kay Kritzwiser), even though most past participants are routinely reinvited without being screened. The jury deemed her elephants “whimsical novelties” compared with works that “make a serious comment.”
Exhibition Chairman Alan Hanlon stands firmly behind the jury’s judgment. “What we have here is a little lady dabbling in ceramics, and she is upset because we have said no,” snaps Hanlon. Slaney insists that Atwood has been assigned a place in the show. But Atwood has notified organizers that she no longer makes functional pots because of the potentially toxic nature of the glaze and therefore cannot comply with their terms. “Let’s face it,” she says. “This exhibition is not the prestige event of the art season.”
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